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Algerian writer shows different side of Italy

Novelist Amara Lakhous on immigration and identity

16 November, 15:22
Algerian writer shows different side of Italy (by Romina Spina).

(ANSA) - Rome, November 16 - Rome-based writer Amara Lakhous had no luggage when he arrived in Italy from Northern Africa fifteen years ago.

At the time, his native Algeria was imploding into civil war and he was forced into exile. The only thing the young author carried with him was the final draft of his first novel. "It was my real passport", he told ANSA of the manuscript that would launch his career.

Today, the 40-year-old Lakhous is considered nothing short of a literary sensation in Italy.

In a country that has difficulties adapting to its growing multicultural society, his lyrical yet satirical stories revolving around immigration offer readers food for thought and raise important questions about identity. His third book, which he describes as "a real comedy born out of a great frustration", has just been published to rave reviews.

In chapter-long monologues sprinkled with engaging scenes, Lakhous paints essentially sad pictures of everyday life in Rome's Arab-Muslim community, an immigrant reality that he experienced first-hand for over a decade. His latest effort is set to repeat the great success of its predecessor, 'Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio', a black comedy populated by a melting pot of characters living in a run-down palazzo in Piazza Vittorio, Rome's most multiethnic neighbourhood.

Based on an earlier version written in Arabic, Lakhous entirely rewrote the book in Italian and published it in 2006. The bestseller has been translated into English, Dutch, German and even Korean.

It won him numerous awards in Italy and abroad and was turned into a movie released last spring. Lakhous, who became an Italian citizen two years ago, is by no means the only former immigrant writing about issues related to identity in a multicultural environment.

Other authors of so-called migrant literature emerged in recent years aiming to challenge existing boundaries within the controversial debate on immigration in Italy, a country with a long history of emigration but relatively unaccustomed and ill-prepared to accept foreigners who arrive from Africa or the Middle East to settle in its cities.

Like his fellow writers, Lakhous invites Italian readers, often inhibited by racial stereotypes, to look at today's world around them through the eyes of an immigrant in their country. "It's like being a film director who arrives from the outside and sets up his camera to shoot the scene; he decides what to show and how to show it, and ultimately he shows reality", said the author. Words like "integration" or "assimilation" hardly find their way into Lakhous' books.

For the award-winning novelist and anthropologist they are double-edged swords as they presume that there is a correct way to integrate, when the real question is: "What is 'Italian'? In which Italy does a foreigner have to integrate?" Paradoxically, it's not only the immigrants', but also the Italians' identity that is at stake, he said.

An Italian reviewer noted that rather than talking about immigrants, Lakhous talked about Italians in his novels.

Written in two languages and dotted with expressions in both Arabic and Italian, his books are mirrors that critically reflect Italian society and force readers to question their own beliefs when debating issues like immigration, identity, culture and religion.

"Rather than asking themselves who they are, people have to ask themselves what they do", Lakhous told ANSA.

The Algerian-Italian author's work even goes a step further. While his books may be set within Rome's immigrant community and reproduce lights and shadows of Italian society, the same stories about multicultural coexistence could also take place in Paris, London or New York. The stories' authenticity and their ability to transcend borders are the result of Lakhous' deep understanding of immigration issues, developed through personal experience and postgraduate studies.

By writing about what he knows best, the author is never afraid of being honest throughout his friendly satire so his protagonists can break cultural, racial or even religious taboos.

"I don't write to comfort people and I don't care how they react. I tell it as it is." photos: Stills from the film 'Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio' directed by Isotta Toso.

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